First Move: Refineries’ Toxic Gas, Harvey Damage, EPA Economic Reviews

Houston’s hazardous air pollution has spiked as Hurricane Harvey shuts down refineries and petrochemical complexes.

Emergency shutdowns released more than 2 million pounds of harmful pollutants into the air, according to initial reports to Texas regulators.

Affected Houston-areas refineries include ExxonMobil’s sprawling Baytown complex, as well as refineries run by Chevron-Phillips, Petrobas, Royal Dutch Shell. It also includes the shutdown of Motiva Enterprises’ Port Arthur facility—the nation’s largest crude oil refinery.

While the shutdowns may be necessary from a safety perspective, shutting down boilers and other equipment can produce significant amounts of air pollution. Chevron Phillips reported to Texas’ Commission on Environmental Quality that the company expects to exceed permitted limits for several hazardous pollutants, such as 1,3-butadiene, benzene, and ethylene, during shutdown procedures.

Energy-Incident Response Headaches

Harvey also is taxing the various government responses to damaged energy infrastructure.

A 14-inch pipeline in La Porte, Texas, spewed a toxic gas for several hours—just one of the infrastructure incidents challenging regulators as Harvey dumps record-breaking rain on the state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is monitoring oil, gas, and other facilities reporting spills and giving technical guidance to wastewater operators in flood-impacted areas. And the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is working with pipeline operators to give them better views of the integrity of their facilities.

Model Lacks Clarity: EPA Advisers

Economic modeling can be confusing—even to EPA’s Science Advisory Board.

Its members told the EPA that the agency model for evaluating broad economic costs and benefits of air pollution regulations isn’t clear enough to help the public. The analysis is intended to help utilities, industries, and policymakers determine the effects of federal regulations on factors like energy prices and employment.

Board members who met Aug. 29 to discuss their draft report on EPA’s draft economy-wide model asked for clarifications and transparency on the model’s shortcomings.

What Else?

  • “Garbage juice:" North Carolina lawmakers schedule a Wednesday veto-override vote to allow landfill operators to spray leachate and wastewater into the air to manage solid waste.
  • Wisconsin’s top environmental regulator is joining EPA’s regional leadership team in Kansas.
  • Duke Energy could add 700 megawatts of solar-power capacity to Florida’s grid by 2021 and stop billing customers for a halted nuclear project under a plan filed with state regulators.
  • Post-Harvey, federal and state leaders should pause to make sure money being spent will help prevent future damage, analysts say.

Today’s Events

  • Noon | Women in Green forum | How women impact the environmental industry
  • 2 p.m. | EPA webinar | How drought and other environmental concerns affectglobal water quantity and quality
  • 3 p.m. | World Resources Institute report | Helping Asia’s poorest people accesswater pollution information

Quote of the Day

“This is a tremendously costly endeavor, and that’s why we haven’t done it already.” — Peter Wilcoxen, head of an EPA Science Advisory Board panel, on finishing a draft report on modeling the economic impacts of regulation.

From Our Inbox

  • list of Harvey resources compiled by the Association of Air Pollution Control Agencies.
  • Governments and business may face more lawsuits for failing to prevent damage from floods, heat waves, and other climate change risks, a commentary published in Nature says.
  • A Massachusetts company using ammonia in its refrigeration system is now complying with federal laws, EPA announces.

All About: EPA Gasoline Waivers

The EPA is temporarily relaxing various environmental regulations to pave the way for more gasoline availability in crisis-struck Gulf states. That’s because gasoline is needed to offset shortages tied to oil refinery shutdowns and flooding, the agency and governors in Texas and Louisiana say.

But the move is leaving biofuel producers confused.

Administrator Scott Pruitt in recent days gave the go-ahead to gas stations in parts of Texas and Louisiana to sell fuel that breaks environmental rules on smog prevention. Those rules involve arcane regulations on the Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) of gas—which is used to measure ozone threats—and a type of refinement that limits pollutant emissions.

Pruitt, however, isn’t allowing sales of gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol (E15), which is banned from sale in the summer months over RVP concerns. That issue has drawn the most attention to the RVP metric in recent years.

“The waivers issued don’t do anything to allow expanded E15 blending,” Renewable Fuels Association Executive Vice President Geoff Cooper said in a statement. Cooper said the waiver will allow sales of gasoline without any ethanol, a move that he said “seems odd.”

The renewable fuel standard requires biofuel blending into gasoline, and now most gasoline sold nationwide contains 10 percent ethanol.

Pruitt also lifted gasoline requirements for 13 Atlanta-area counties. An agency spokesperson said EPA “is ready to act expeditiously” if extreme and unusual supply problems occur elsewhere.

Around the Web

WashPost | Flooding has killed more than 1,000 people in Sierra Leone and South Asia.

Popular Science | Where will all the Harvey floodwater go?

NYT | Making, selling, or importing plastic bags in Kenya can now land you up to four years in jail.

Harvard Business Review | How the insurance industry can influence climate-change planning.

—With assistance from Brian Dabbs.